A few weeks ago I came across an article that described an interview-based study in which participants had been asked to identify seven significant events in their life and then construct a narrative of their life using these events as a structure. Inevitably, events that were chosen were times of significant change. I tried the same approach and came up with eighteen events over my lifetime that either caused me to create a new or modified pathway though life and/or changed my behaviour in a significant way which meant I changed my attitude and approach to life and therefore lived it differently. Through this process I identified two different types of life changing events which I'm calling inflections and disruptions.
Inflections are points in your life where events and decisions either take you in a different direction, altering the course of at least one aspect of your life - like education or a job. Characteristically they engender positive feelings of hope, adventure and opportunity as you are propelled into and along a new trajectory. They require you to go through a transition which may or may not be easy to make but the transition is generally not accompanied by a deep sense of loss for what has been before. Applying for, securing and settling into a new job are important inflection points in so far as they provide important new contexts for social interaction, problem solving and challenges and require transition which impacts on identity, confidence and capability.
Thankfully, like most people I have experienced many more inflections in my life than disruptions.
Some examples from my own life
I have tried to map the inflection and disruption points in my life (see list below) in order to develop a deeper appreciation of their impact on me and my life.
Inflection points occurred three times during my secondary schooling and on each occasion there was a circumstance in which a teacher believed in me sufficiently to give me a chance and help create opportunity for me which took me on a new pathway to the future without feeling any sense of loss for the past. Inflection points in my life also determined my pathway to a PhD and to my first professional role and 8 years of living in Saudi Arabia. At a personal level, inflection points occurred when I met the first girl who I decided to marry, and also, after her untimely death at the age of 48, the second girl I decided to marry. Inflections also occurred as each of my children were born and we grew from a couple into a family since becoming a parent and caring for children has a significant impact on your own identity and behaviours.
"Very few people see inflection points as the opportunities they often are: catalysts for changing their lives; moments when a person can modify the trajectory he or she is on and redirect it in a more desirable direction. Whether it's a new job, a change in a relationship, or something else, an inflection point is one of those periodic windows of opportunity when a person can pause, reflect, and ask: '... do I want to continue on this path or is now the moment to change direction?"(2)
It's hard to remember what you thought as a child, but now I think that I did realise at the time when I was in my first inflection point, that I was at crossroads and that the decision I was making would reshape my life. I could see that there were opportunities for me to take although I could only appreciate the potential in the change I made when I looked back. As Soren Kierkgaard once said 'Life can only be understood backwards [after it has been] lived forwards'
List of important inflections (I) and dislocations (D) in my life
I1 1963 Moving from a Secondary Modern School to a Grammar School
I2 1967 Being allowed into the 6th form and discovering I liked geology
I3 1967 Dating a girl who I later married
I4 1969 Circumstances determined I went to Kings College London rather than the university I had planned to go to
I5 1971 I secured my first job as a geologist working in a tin mine which 1 year later opened gave me the chance to start a PhD
I6 1976 Chance meeting paved the way for my first professional role as a teacher in Saudi Arabia
17 1979, 81 and 84 birth of my three children
I8 1995 New job/role and transition to Higher Education Quality Council
I9 1997 New job/role and transition to Quality Assurance Agency
I10 2000 New job/role and transition to Learning Teaching Support Network
I11 2003 My marriage to my second wife and becoming step dad to three children aged 4-12 I12 2006 New job/role and transition to SCEPTrE Director University of Surrey
I13 2011 Redundancy and transition to self-employment and setting up of Lifewide Education
I14 2012 Birth of twins to my daughter one of whom is disabled - I became their carer for 1 and sometimes 2 days a week
D1 1985 Returning from Saudi Arabia - giving up a professional role, a job I enjoyed and found fulfilling, an identity and friends to return to the UK without a job with much uncertainty for 6 months.
D2 1990 Giving up my career as a geology teacher/researcher for a Civil Service role in HM Inspectorate of education. The year long transition challenged and changed me and required great resilience to cope with and survive.
D3 1993 Being made redundant by HMI and having to take on a job in Plymouth that required me to live away from home Monday-Friday. Again significant challenge and invention of new role while losing my old identity.
D4 1998/99 Illness and death of my first wife - loss of my best friend and partner in life
Turning to the disruptions in my life I have experienced several of my own making occurred. The first occurred when my family and I left Saudi Arabia and I gave up a job I enjoyed, many good friends and a lifestyle we had been accustomed to. The second when I was 40, and had reached a point in my career when I felt I needed a change. An opportunity presented itself to move from teaching geology in a Polytechnic to becoming Her Majesty’s Inspector (HMI) of geoscience education - a position I was not sure I wanted even after I had attended an interview. But I was successful and I spent time trying to find out what the job entailed and eventually convinced myself that I could do it and also that it would be worthwhile. But the first 12 months were the hardest of my professional life. I had to give up being the professional geologist I had invested heavily in becoming and there were enormous feelings of loss alongside the stress, uncertainty and at times exhaustion I was experiencing. A few years later in 1992 I was made redundant as the HMI role was abolished - this was a disruption but more significantly the next job I took meant I had to work away from home in Plymouth - it caused me a lot of angst for the two years I commuted weekly and was unable to be with my wife and three children.
My most recent disruption was being made redundant in 2011 and realising that because I had reached the age when I could take my occupational pension seeing that there was potential in the situation (seeing it as an inflection point) to construct a life of self-employment and other purposeful activity.
The biggest disruption I have so far had to cope with was the loss of my first wife to cancer in 1999. When she died, a significant part of me died with her and I know that I became a different person to the person I was when she was alive. While outwardly it might have looked as if I had coped well with my loss I kept how I felt to myself and I lost my enthusiasm for life for a while and within a few months I had decided to move on to another role in another organisation - I think, in part, to escape the past.
Looking back, I can now see how all these inflection points and disruptions were the triggers for new pathways and experiences through life. Many of these points required me to go through a transition that was not enjoyable or comfortable and which changed me to varying degrees and in various ways. All required me to learn and develop as a person. Many required me to develop myself professionally for new roles. Many required me to relinquish an identity and begin to develop a new identity. For these reasons, I conclude that the points of inflection and disruption in our life have a profound influence on who we are at each stage of our life and who we eventually become. They are largely responsible for our uniquely personal learning and development and our accomplishments in the contexts we have inhabited.
1) Exploring Disruption and Resilience Lifewide Magazine December 2014
2) Taking Advantage of Life’s (Few and Far Between) Inflection Points
Howard's Gift: Uncommon Wisdom to Inspire Your Life's Work, By Eric C. Sinoway http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/7041.html
Illustrations by Kiboko HachiYon